a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Christmas Missing II

Posted on: December 24, 2014

Now that Hanukkah is behind us, well almost, and it’s Christmas Eve I’m experiencing a new kind of Christmas missing. Which has less to do with being Jewish in a city that’s more difficult to be a Jew, and more to do with memories of Christmas’ past, my family, my sister and feeling so far away from the people I love the most.

Brutal honesty, I, like nearly everyone, took my family and specifically my sister for granted. When we were little girls and we would quarrel try to kill one another my father would always have us make up and remind us that we only had one sister. We’d scowl at each other in still simmering anger and I would think, G-d I wish I had another sister, cause this one sure was sucky. After those fights, I’m sure Patrice felt the same way.

Our high school years were slightly tumultuous. I entered two years before her and had established myself and she showed up my junior year as the annoying younger sister. It wasn’t until I left for college that we actually became friends. And when I returned after freshman year we actually became really good friends. I watched as she experimented with drugs and when those experiments became habitual and then a full-blown addiction we drifted apart again.

And when we’d fight and say incredibly ugly things to one another during these dark times of our relationship my father would still remind me that I only had one sister and that I should treat her as such. Except now we were adults and my simmering anger was steeped in worry and a feeling of helplessness. As her older sister, I felt responsibility for the woman she was now and wondered if I had been nicer to her when we were girls and teens that things would some how have turned out differently.

Last Christmas I joined my parents and the boys in Florida for warm weather and family time. I spoke to Patrice on the phone on Christmas day and like I’d done so many times I mumbled, “I love you.” to her sort of out of obligation because that’s what you say to your loved ones on Christmas Day. I was angry with her, of course, and wished naively, as I’d done for the past few years, that she’d just snap out of it. But, every psychologist, doctor and expert in addiction knows that an addict can’t just “snap out of it.”

It was infuriating to hear at the time of her death and at her memorial, but I truly believe that my sister is in a better place and while it would be great to call her tomorrow and to force an angry “I love you” out because it’s Christmas and that’s what you do at Christmas, I can say it to her from my heart and know that wherever her soul is in which ever plane it exists, that she not only hears it, but feels it.

So, it’s Christmas Eve and I’m here in Seattle. Tomorrow I’ll talk to the boys, which seems to make me both cry and laugh at the same time this season. I’ll talk to my parents, which will also be hard. And, or but, most importantly my I loves you will be filled with meaning and purpose.

To my readers who celebrate Christmas, I wish you a very happy one. I hope you have an amazing day filled with meaning. Don’t forget to tell your family members and friends that you love them, even when it’s hard.

Christmas Missing Part One

A Cross-Post from Ritualwell

I was supposed to write about my continued transition to Jewish life in Seattle. I was putting the finishing touches on this, my second blog post for Ritualwell, when I saw via Facebook that the Staten Island Grand Jury in yet another case about excessive force and police violence against black men in this country came back without an indictment.

From the comfort of my couch I watched while my friends and acquaintances stepped toe-to-toe with police officers in riot gear while they protested. I reposted and offered prayers of strength, solidarity and courage. I wonder if I will have to teach the children I (B’H) will have to watch their back, and mistrust the police officers whose job it is to serve communities. I wonder how many more lives will be lost before the rest of the country wakes up. I wonder what it will take for the Jewish community to not just speak the word צדק—justice, but also to work towards it.

Read the rest of my blog on Ritualwell.

Christmas Missing I

Posted on: December 16, 2014

This is how excited I was to find a Chabad menorah in Pioneer Square

This is how excited I was to find a Chabad menorah in Pioneer Square

For the first time in over 4 years I actually miss Christmas.

Living in New York, Christmas comes in with a bang. Between the windows at Saks Fifth Avenue, the tree at Rockefeller Center and the lights strung up in neighborhoods, Christmas is all around you. The music gets stuck in your head as you shop and without realizing it, you’re singing “Frosty the Snowman” or “Jingle Bells” on your walk home, dodging Christmas tree sellers on the street corners. And just when it feels like you’re Christmased out -“Excuse me, are you Jewish?” “Hello, sir, are you Jewish?” “Do you have Hanukkah candles?”

Oh Chabad. Those really friendly, mitzvah-pushing guys in the black hats. I could always count on them to ignore me, but to remind me that the cold winter months aren’t just about Santa, but also Hanukkah.

Back in our old neighborhood in Brooklyn, M and I would bundle up and take a walk through through the Victorian section of Ditmas Park and in about every other house we’d pass, we’d spot  the light of a hanukkiah glowing in the light of a window.

Giant menorahs stand throughout the city and to unfortunately quote Adam Sandler, when you felt like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree, those Chabadniks, and giant menorah, and the glow of candles in the windows reminded me that there was something very Jewish about the winter.

Here in Seattle, it feels even more bleak. This afternoon, in search for an electric menorah for my store, I went into four different shops in search for a Hanukkah section. In my neighborhood grocery store I was directed to the kosher food aisle, at the Target in downtown Seattle I was offered a silver Christmas Tree and some blue ornaments, and in at the Bartells I was simply told that there wasn’t a Hanukkah section.

M and I always discussed having a firm line when it came to Christmas vs. Hanukkah-our children would celebrate Christmas with their Nana, but in our home there would be no tree, no Santa, no green or red. And as I’ve realized, yet again, the world is a different place when you’re a Jew outside of New York. Which I’m going to start calling Little Israel (L.I. for short) from here on out.

I was scolded in a comment for kvetching about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest and encouraged to stop comparing my new city to New York, but when being a New York Jew is all I know, it’s all I know. And it’s not just Hanukkah, it’s everything. After Shabbat service last week I was talking about needing another mezuzah for my door and my friend asked where I could get one. I joked that there was this amazing place where you could walk down the street and pop into not one, not two, but at least a half dozen shops for all things Judaica. You could purchase new mezuzahs or find an antique one.

“Where?” my excited friend asked.

My response-Avenue J. In Brooklyn.

She couldn’t imagine it, a place where you could go to find everything you needed to be Jewish. And, honestly, I can barely believe it either. In one afternoon I could visit two-three kosher grocery stores and shop elbow-to-elbow with the most frum Jews and a Jewish woman wearing a short skirt-all because we needed Kosher for Pesach ingredients. You can find entire kosher wine/liquor stores, not to mention some of the best challah in the city. All of this, mere blocks from our apartment. And while there are some things that are okay to buy online-like Shabbos candles, others I like, like a new mezuzah, I want to touch and feel.

I’ve never felt such a sense of defeat, anger and frustration looking for a simple electric menorah as I felt today. And while I don’t miss Christmas or wish that I could celebrate it (or be a “Holiday Tree”/Hanukkah bush Jew) I, again, realized how effortless being Jewish and celebrating Jewishness is when you’re in a Jewish city.

~~

Now, kvetching aside, on tonight, the first night of Chanukah, I encourage everyone to seek out a Chanukah Action in your area. I will be working, unfortunately, but there is a lot of amazing things happening all over the world. Let our Hanukkah candles not only remind us of the miracle, but be a reminder of our duty as Jews to be a light unto the world. We have a lot to work on in this world, I’m afraid. And we have a duty to work towards צדק, justice, in our time.

www.chanukahaction.org

 

Stay tuned for my RitualWell piece about Jewish responsibility and racial justice.

I can't breatheLast Tuesday was a hard one for me.

When the Grand Jury in Staten Island returned a non-indictment verdict in the choking death of Eric Garner, another black man in a long line of black men who have died at the hands of police, was enraged. My responsibilities for the day were pushed aside and a vacillated between extreme anger and extreme sadness. And disbelief that we lived in a society not much different from that of the Jim Crow south.

It sounds strange, but could “see” how the Grand Jury in the Michael Brown case could have reached their decision. This is not to say that I agree with it, at all, the decision not to indict was injustice at it’s finest. I was livid that Michael Brown’s life wasn’t worth a trial, but I could see how a Grand Jury, faced with conflicting evidence and persuasive attorneys could have come up with their decision. I was furious, I felt defeated, but for some reason I didn’t feel moved, and in fact felt quite removed from the entire thing.

I reposted prayers from friends who were on the front lines in Missouri and like everyone else I noticed the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter start to trend on social media, come out of the mouths of news casters and protesters alike.

Perhaps about a week later a new hashtag started popping up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds; #alllivesmatter. I had lots of feelings about it, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it until the decision about Eric Garner came down. The feeling I pin pointed was anger.

Read the rest of this entry »

Not So Special

Posted on: December 3, 2014

There’s something quite precious about naivety. There’s an innocence that sometimes boarders on delusion, but it’s sweet. Well, that’s at least how I like to think about my own naivety in relation to becoming Jewish. I had so many questions; first and foremost was how I, a black, gay woman, could be a Jew. I named my blog, Black, Gay and Jews partially because I love Rebecca Walker, partially because I thought it fit me perfectly, and partially because I thought I was special. Thinking I was special is the naivety. 

Of course, I am not special. Or rather, there’s nothing inherently special about being a black, Gay Jew. In fact I know a lot of black gay, trans, bi Jews that I almost (not really) think my blog name should be “One Woman Who is Black, Gay and Jewish.”

I had the opportunity to speak with Ilana Kaufman, another black, gay Jewish woman, about a year ago with my JMN hat on, though we realized we’d spoken via email for some time. She’s been profiled in Haaretz, which is pretty cool in and of itself. It’s also pretty cool that Ilana is pretty amazing.

Photo from JTA.com

Photo from JTA.com

(JTA) — When Ilana Kaufman, a program officer at the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation, arrived at San Quentin State Prison for a meeting with the Jewish chaplain at California’s oldest correctional facility, the chaplain couldn’t seem to find her — even though Kaufman was standing in plain sight.

As Kaufman waited in the receiving area, a security officer by her side, the spiritual leader of the prison community — largely composed of men of color — turned her head left and right trying to locate the federation representative whose name she knew but whose face she had never seen.

“Finally the officer says, ‘Chaplain, this person standing right next to me,’” Kaufman recalled. “And the chaplain says, ‘You know, you are not who I expected.’”

It wasn’t the first time that Kaufman, 42, had heard such a comment.

In her two years as the federation officer responsible for regional grant making in Marin and Sonoma counties, Kaufman had seen her fair share of jaws drop when she walked into a Jewish communal space. Kaufman is black — the daughter of an Ashkenazic Jewish mother and an African-American father.

Keep reading on Haaretz. 

I’m so excited to share my first blog post on RitualWell! This is the first of in a series of blog posts that I will be writing for them. I hope that you will follow along.

Enjoy!

An amazing thing happened a few days ago.

I was enjoying my lunch in the break room of the retail store I help to manage when one of my colleagues came rushing into the room.

“Erika!” he exclaimed, “Come here! Now!”

I was annoyed because I was on my break and protested the entire way to the sales floor.

“Look,” he said gesturing towards a corner of the floor.

I looked and saw an admittedly cute blonde French bulldog, but only responded, “Cute dog.”

“No,” he persisted. “Look” He cocked his head sharply and again looked towards the corner.

I looked and saw a boy in a kippah, his tzitzit hanging at his waist and immediately felt so excited I literally jumped into the air. It was the first time since leaving New York City that I’d seen someone who was outwardly Jewish. When my excitement subsided enough to speak, I approached the woman accompanying the boy to ask them about the Jewish community in Seattle, my new hometown.

Read the rest on RitualWell

Seattle Shul Shopping

Posted on: December 1, 2014

Two Fridays ago I decided to take the rainy trek to the shul in my neighborhood. It was about a 20 minute walk and as I got closer to the synagogue an old, yet familiar, sensation overwhelmed my body. Nervousness. Real, honest, pit in my stomach nervousness. I actually hadn’t felt that sick with nerves since my mikvah date, but it was the same. The same heaviness in my legs, the same realization that I should have eaten something. The same sort of dread.

All I wanted to do was sneak into the doors find a back pew and daven.

Things with the move are still rough. I’m feeling a loneliness unlike any other I’ve felt. I’m missing my Jewish community and my  queer community, which were conveniently rolled into one most of the time. I’m missing my JMN family, seeing beautiful brown shades of Jews around a Shabbat table. I miss the MTA. (I know). I also really missed the connection I feel in Jewish spaces. There’s a wonderful calmness that washes over me when I start singing Yedid Nefesh with the Shir Ha Maalot minyan in NYC (seriously, if you’re in Brooklyn, check them out). I long for it and I hoped that I would find that peaceful silence on Friday night.

As I approached the synagogue I noticed a security guard and hoped that this new shul would pass my first “test”-equal treatment of everyone who entered. I watched as a woman entered the synagogue, unstopped and held my breath as I approached.

Read the rest of this entry »

A Prayer for #Ferguson- Cross Post

Posted on: November 25, 2014

“I live in two worlds. I am Jewish and I am black, and I am calling out to the Jewish community to please take notice of these past events, not just the events in Ferguson but the number of black men and people of color in our society who are stopped by police, arrested by police and even killed by police. Many in the Jewish community believe that these issues do not concern us, but they do. American Jews are now more racially diverse than ever. Every Shabbat many of us sit next to a Jews of color in our synagogues. Many of us have children of color, many of us have people of color in our families and many of us are black. We as a Jewish community can no longer say these issues do not concern us.”- #Sandra Lawson

Around the U.S folks are taking to the streets to protest last night’s grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. While I can never understand the level of grief that the Brown family is feeling, or the frustration the community of Ferguson is feeling, Sandra Lawson’s words reached me deeply. I commented on my Facebook page that sometimes all you can do is pray, and I truly believe that.

Read the rest of the soon-to-be Rabbi Sandra Lawson’s prayer here.

First, let me just say that I really have no clue what an evangelical Christian is, really. I’m not sure if they’re the snake handling Christians or the subway (miss you, MTA) preachers. What I mean is that when someone comes to me to say that they’re thinking about converting to Judaism, I push encourage them to do so. Especially if they are a person of color.

I get about 6 emails a year from people, often people of color or LGBTQ folks, interested in converting to Judaism. They usually talk about their current Jewish experience, flack/concern they’re getting from their family members and partners, and sometimes a desire to quit trying to be a Jew. In my experience, it’s not generally a desire to quit because of the infamous three turn downs, or the length of time and commitment it takes to convert, but sometimes from self-doubt or loneliness. Can I really be a Jew and be gay? Can I really be a Jew and a person of color? Can I still be a Jew if my family doesn’t understand. Am I alienating myself from my family, friends, community if I adopt a new religion and culture?

I, of course, don’t have the answers, but I have come to realize what it must be like for these folks in a new way, living here in the Pacific Northwest. I would tell people to follow their path to Judaism, no matter what. I’d tell them my personal stories of overcoming the loneliness by immersing myself in my community. I now realize that it’s pretty hard to immerse yourself in a community, when you live in a community with limited Jewish community.

I’ve written about it before, and will continue to write about the difficulty I’ve found living in a space where the Jewish community is as present as it was back East. I’ve been reminded that being a Jew in NYC can make us complacent and lazy and I’ve been asked to think of my move as a move to a different country and not to compare NYC to Seattle. Thing is, I can’t not compare them, because being a Jew in NYC is all that I know. My expectations of the Jewish community here in Seattle aren’t to be the Jewish community back home, but I do have expectations, it’s only natural.

Tonight I’ll be taking my first venture into the Jewish community by visiting a synagogue in my neighborhood. Fingers crossed.

 

 

Erika and the Man With the Red Beard

Posted on: November 20, 2014

Since January 2, 2014 I have taken a picture of myself almost every single day. I’ve posted these pictures; sometimes flattering, sometimes not so flattering to my Instagram account. With the majority of the year behind us, only two of us remain under the hashtag #selfieaday2014. Me and a guy with a large, reddish beard, aka Red Beard Guy.

There are other daily selfie hashtags on Instagram, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything truly remarkable, but I do love that after screening #selffieaday2014, I’ve watched faces join and leave and now it’s just me and Red Beard Guy. For over 300 days I’ve seen his face. It’s round and freckled. He has a long-ish, narrow nose and his sometimes bespectacled eyes are evenly spaced on his face. He doesn’t have a widow’s peak and his hair seems full, if slightly receding on the sides. He doesn’t appear to have many (any?) tattoos and he seems to enjoy video games, comics, and Nirvana. I have no idea where he lives, if he’s partnered or single. I don’t know his sexual orientation or preference. I don’t know what he does, what makes him happy or what makes him sad.

I sometimes wonder if he wonders about me and I wonder if he continues to take selfies to “win” our own private competition, or if he, like I, have a slightly deeper reason for taking a daily picture.

Initially the reason for doing the #selfieaday2014 was selfish. Like everyone with Facebook I saw, liked and shared the cute viral montages of people who’d taken photographs of themselves daily, documenting their lives or the lives of loved one and I thought I’d give it a try, too.  I was looking for a way to move myself forward in this social-media obsessed world I’ve built around myself and my blog and who I am as “Black, Gay and Jewish.” I thought I would do my own photo collage at the end, I’d make a video and write a self-indulgent post about how amazing it was to “discover” who I was through my own eyes after taking my own photo every day for one year.

And then Patrice died. And then I lost my job. And then we went through a year of fertility treatment, tried to get pregnant 4 times and failed four times. And I had fertility surgery. And then we moved across the country, leaving everything we knew behind.

And through it all I kept taking selfies, and while it still feels really embarrassing and still quite self-involved, it felt important.

I wonder if it’s the same for Red Beard Guy. When I’m feeling more voyeuristic, I’ll click back through his selfies and he, like me, sometimes doesn’t post much about the day or why the selfie is being taken. And on other days, he’s incredibly honest and vulnerably open with his current situation or state of mind. Sometimes I’m taken aback and worry about him, and then I’m reminded that the reason I, too, am taking pictures through streaming tears, puffy eyes and blank stares is because I want to be honest.

A few weeks ago I posted on Facebook the current state of affairs of my new life in Seattle. I prefaced it with something to the effect of not “Facebook-happying” and wanting to be “honest.” I told my truth. The move sucked, absolutely nothing went right and while I could keep posting pictures of our road trip or plaster a smile on my face. I was tired of lying and I wanted to tell the truth. And after I told the truth I got votes of confidence from friends appreciating my honesty on a social platform built on illusions of happiness. I also got really concerned phone calls of worry, which I’m sure were meant to be in comfort, but they felt like I’d done something that had made someone else uncomfortable. I always wonder why it is that we’re more comfortable to like happiness than it is to reach out to people when they’re at their lowest points in their life. There’s another post about social media “happying” but I’ll stop for now.

Last night I did calculations and realized that even if I continue to take a selfie for the rest of the year, I’ve missed 15 days and there are 39 days left in the year. I had big plans for myself this year; goals and things I wanted to prioritize, but life and death side tracked most of my aspirations. As slightly pathetic as this next sentence is, doing #selfieaday2014 feels like the thing I’m most proud of this year.

 

 

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